Last March, I stood in the middle of the A66 between Penrith and Keswick and gawped at what had become a ghost road. It is one of the main routes in and out of the Lake District, where I’ve lived all my life, and usually roars with traffic. But there wasn’t a vehicle for miles. I just stared, stunned by the silence. The sun was shining in a deep-blue sky, the birds were singing, but it felt apocalyptic, as if I were the only person left in the world.
In those first weeks of lockdown, the whole landscape came to seem radically different. The shores of the lakes were abandoned, even on sunny days; the car parks were empty; the footpaths and fells silent. It felt wrong to enjoy this time that was terrible for so many people, but, in truth, many of us did. The 19 million visitors a year to the Lakes are an accepted fact of our day-to-day lives, and I never imagined they would not be here. Now I could see what it might be like to live without them all around us, something perhaps a lot of rural people had long wanted.
Like many who live in tourist honeypots, we have long bemoaned the impact of visitors. We grumble about their driving, their parking, and their aimless milling about in inconvenient places. During lockdown, people felt that they had got their community back. No procession of tourists past their front door with Alpine walking sticks and enough mountaineering kit for an assault on Everest. No folks peering into their home. No camper vans blocking their drive, or knocking their wing mirrors off in the narrow lanes. No noisy crowds on the village green, eating ice-creams. No idiots jostling elderly residents with their backpacks in the post office. No dog mess hanging from trees in “recyclable” plastic bags, waiting for the dog-poo fairies to bin it. No one urinating on their drive late at night, heading back to B&Bs from the pub. And no dickheads using satnav to climb mountains, then having to call out (and risk the lives of) mountain rescue volunteers when they get stuck on rocky crags in the freezing rain wearing only T-shirts and trainers. There was a sense of relief to be done with all those hassles for a while.
We live in Matterdale, a beautiful valley just off the main tourist routes. Ours is a traditional family-run farm, and our work revolves around the seasonal movements of sheep and cattle from the valley to the high fells. We have farmed within a few miles of here for many centuries.
I understand why people come: modern life is increasingly urban, and they want to get outside, breathe clean air, roam free on fells, swim in lakes, or just bask in the beauty of this awesome place. If I lived in a city, I would feel the same. I remind myself that some visitors have been isolated in tiny flats with no gardens, away from their loved ones, or working in hospitals and care homes. They need rest and relief. I don’t resent their presence (I long ago jettisoned youthful anti-tourist prejudices), and I am glad millions of people love this landscape, and that we can share it.
And yet. While most visitors are polite and considerate, for some years now, there has been a troublesome, and growing, minority who don’t respect our landscape and communities. Perhaps they lack a basic understanding of farm practices, so are unaware that they are causing problems. My farming is significantly easier without people walking through fields of lambs or calves with loose dogs scaring them, or worse, killing them; speeding down our little road and hitting animals that have escaped; leaving gates open, allowing separate flocks and herds to mix, creating hours of work; parking in farm gateways, blocking us out; lighting campfires in fields or woods; and throwing litter out of cars. This stuff is exhausting and tiresome.
Eventually, last summer, people started to return. I made a point of talking to walkers as I fed my sheep by the footpaths, to remind myself that most are decent. There was a real joy in those conversations; we often swapped notes on wildlife sightings, such as the barn owls that hunt across the hillside, connecting on this common ground. But there were less gratifying encounters, too. As I took my sons to school and nursery, I felt sick at the rubbish tangled among the wildflowers on the verges, and the abandoned tents.
Of course, communities like ours rely on the income and employment that tourism creates. Most of the farms have campsites or B&Bs, sell produce directly to visitors or to restaurants, and have family members who work in tourism. My own daughter works in the local pub.
The government furlough scheme and various grants have filled some of the tourism revenue hole, but some folk are clearly much worse off, and many businesses have disappeared overnight. Being so dependent on tourism in a volatile world is probably unwise, as lots of other visitor-dependent places have now learned. And it creates a tension, a clash of two senses of place: one that says, “We live here and have a right to do what we do without too much disturbance”; and another that says, “It’s a place for everyone to visit and enjoy.”
I believe that the best chance of survival for our traditional farming is the love that so many people feel for the Lake District. And, yes, the money visitors bring. My job is to manage a few acres of this epic beauty, and to do that I need outsiders’ help and support. It is, of course, their land as much as it is my land.
Today, the trickle of visitors that started last summer has become a flood, as lockdown restrictions have further relaxed (and with foreign travel largely impossible this summer). The pubs are serving customers again, walkers are back on the fells, and the shops are getting busier. There are cars parked down the roadside in stupid places (I saw one tipped off its back wheels, half into a ditch). I regularly sit in holiday traffic that takes over an hour to navigate, just to go shopping in the town.
So how do we coexist happily? We need to encourage people to understand and respect the communities they visit, communicate with them more effectively, and be clearer about the responsibilities that come with visiting such a place. Simple actions can help greatly: closing gates; minimising car usage; parking carefully; keeping dogs on leads; thinking about arrival and departure times; scheduling visits to ensure they don’t add to the crowds; removing backpacks before going into shops; respecting the peace and quiet of the places; and taking rubbish away.
Places of beauty are always “contested”; they have layers of use and meaning to a whole range of people. With so many demands on a landscape, perhaps we need to think more creatively about how to manage those tensions. Charging for entry and using technologies such as number-plate recognition could make things easier; we could use the proceeds to help manage the area, supporting local communities and traditional farming, repairing footpaths, and undertaking ambitious environmental restoration projects. Our community interest company has planted more than 100,000 trees, restored miles of hedgerow, and is creating ponds and wetlands so that nature can thrive here once more.
The evidence from elsewhere in the world is that people don’t mind paying an entrance fee for access to such special places, if it is transparently used for progressive causes linked to the place they love. Beauty isn’t free; it comes at a price.
When the first lockdown eased, I took my kids over the hill to paddle across the lake in some secondhand kayaks. For a couple of hours, we were tourists ourselves. We rowed out to the islands, and when we climbed ashore we saw broken eggshells and abandoned nests on the rocks. Geese and ducks had nested there, undisturbed for the first time in a long while, and now that people had returned, they had abandoned their nesting place.
As we rowed back to the shore, we saw some youngsters laughing and playing Frisbee on the gravel banks. A young dad was paddling with a toddler, holding her hand as she tiptoed through the shallows. Boys and girls were throwing stones as far as they could. Two skinny teenagers up to their waists, looking frozen, were daring each other to swim out into the darker water. A man was sitting on a rock feeding the swans bread and talking to them. A young couple walked across the hillside through the woods. An elderly couple were sitting in the shade on a rug, admiring the view.
It would be selfish to deny people access to places like this – they are part of what makes life bearable. These moments of play and beauty might be among the most treasured times of some of these young, and not-so-young, lives. My sense of belonging in these valleys doesn’t replace or crowd out other people’s love, and need, for them; these two loves can coexist, even if it sometimes makes life a little crowded.
Today, there is a sense of excitement that life is returning to normal, for us and for visitors. But there is sadness, too, that our strange moment of quiet is over.
• English Pastoral by James Rebanks is published in paperback on 2 September by Allen Lane.